Who's Doing the Office Housework?
by Dr. Kristen Liesch
I was conducting an environmental assessment for an organization hoping to leverage their physical spaces to support the performance of their female employees (for more on this, see here.) In one of their staff kitchen areas, I came across the following poster:
Clearly, they were having that problem all workplaces have where people - men and women - don’t clean up after themselves, so a few people end up doing the lion’s share of the “office housework.”
And those few people are often women.
A woman’s tendency to overcontribute to the domestic labour in the workplace rolls over from the fact she does the same at home.
In Canada, women spend 133 minutes per day on routine housework, compared with 83 minutes for men.
Women, when asked, don’t always realize they’re playing the “office mom,” and when they do, they often say they don’t mind.
HAVE YOU BEEN DOING THE OFFICE HOUSEWORK?
Do you clean up after others?
Do you organize company events?
Do you head up a committee for this or that?
Do you save the day when the printer is out of paper or reboot the finicky A/V before the meeting?
Do you take notes on the whiteboard during brainstorming sessions?
If you’ve been doing these tasks, and they don’t fall under your job description, then chances are, you’ve been doing office housework.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
The effect of the division of domestic labour in the workplace don’t begin and end with the female employee spending a few more minutes putting dishes away.
1. IT'S A NO-WIN SITUATION
Women are conditioned to be helpers from a young age, and so often derive an internal sense of pleasure when we’ve tidied up, or made someone’s day easier, or taken responsibility off someone else’s plate.
These behaviors are altruistic, and should be performed by all people, but in the context of the workplace, this altruism can negatively impact a woman’s career.
The irony is, performing the office housework doesn’t earn a female professional any gold stars.
In fact, when men do the same office housework as women, they are more likely to be recommended for promotions, important projects, raises and bonuses.
There is no equivalent payoff for women.
2. IT REINFORCES A GENDER STEREOTYPE FEEDBACK LOOP
This feedback loop illustrates how actions are both motivated by - and motivate - perceptions about gender roles.
3. IT CAN LOWER YOUR PAY
When women are expected to do the office housework, that “extra” actually becomes their baseline. The same isn’t true for men. So, when a male colleague declines to take on extra work, no one much cares. However, when women decline to do the “extra,” they are penalized: they receive worse performance evaluations, fewer recommendations for promotions, and are considered less likeable by their peers.
4. IT AFFECTS JOB SATISFACTION & PERFORMANCE
Of the Top 10 reasons why people leave their jobs, “not using or learning skills” comes in at #7, (above “insufficient autonomy,” “lack of fun,” and even “remuneration.” See here.)
Just because you “don’t mind” doing the work, and you’re capable of multitasking, the fact is: When you’re performing office housework, you’re NOT using time and resources that might otherwise be dedicated to the actual requirements of your role.
IF YOU RUN TO THE COPY ROOM FOR EXTRA HANDOUTS BEFORE THE MEETING, YOU AREN’T SITTING AROUND THE TABLE TO BUILD RAPPORT WITH THE CLIENT.
IF YOU’RE RECORDING IDEAS ON THE WHITEBOARD, YOU’RE LESS LIKELY TO BE CONTRIBUTING THEM.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?
There are some strategies you can use to hack the workplace system that has you doing the chores.
1. DODGE IT OR DELEGATE IT
When you find yourself in a situation when you’re liable to be put in charge of a low-value task, you can dodge it by pointing out your immediate obligation, or use the power of delegation to deflect the task to someone whose job description better suits it.
2. TRACK IT
If you can’t dodge or delegate the office housework being assigned to you, track the time you’re spending on it. If the question of your contribution to a team project or your dedication to your work is ever questioned, you will have a record of the “extra” hours you’ve been working on other value-add tasks.
3. GO PUBLIC
Research shows, men are more likely to toot their own horn when it comes to helping out. They tend to make sure they are caught in the act, while women work behind the scenes. Flip the script and do the work in a visible area.
4. SYSTEMATIZE IT
If you’re doing tasks that could be systematised, do it. Create a roster or a spreadsheet that ensures, for example, the role of “whiteboard idea recorder” is one that falls equally on all participants, not disproportionately on the female talent.
5. BE BLUNT
You can try pointing out the fact that women perform more domestic duties in the workplace, and that you’re not interested in perpetuating an already inequitable scenario.
Jake Stika, Executive Director and co-founder of Next Gen Men, points out that male allies can disrupt the systems that stymie gender equity in the workplace:
“Knowing that this issue does persist, it’s important for leaders and male allies to take on office housework themselves, or democratize it across their teams without leaving it to women.”
6. JUST SAY NO
We don’t do ourselves any favors when we raise our hands and volunteer for extra work.
Research shows, for example, that female university faculty members are more likely to serve on an administrative committee when asked, compared with their male colleagues. This work is important, no doubt, but does not necessarily contribute favourably to tenure considerations.
INTERRUPTING THE HABIT
In his New York Times Bestseller, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg discusses the way we can dismantle a bad habit.
Duhigg explains that habits are made of three components: a cue, a behaviour and a reward.
When it comes to office housework, and the example I describe above, the habit works as follows:
CUE: dirty coffee cups in the sink
BEHAVIOUR: put the cups in the dishwasher (with a tsk tsk and shake of the head)
REWARD: that strangely satisfying feeling (pat yourself on the back)
To work toward breaking the habit, one tactic involves changing the behaviour, so that the habit loop looks more like this:
CUE: dirty coffee cups in the sink
BEHAVIOUR: put your own cup in the dishwasher
REWARD: pat yourself on the back for doing what the sign said, and cleaning up after yourself
It's time to hang up the apron.
*A NOTE ON THE SERIES: WOMEN HACKING THE WORKPLACE:
The articles posted at Sum Institute reflect research-based design solutions related to gender equity and diversity outcomes in the workplace. The “Women Hacking the Workplace” series adheres to our commitment to research-based analysis and commentary.
For further reading on a tactical approach to “hacking the workplace" for greater gender equity, see Jessica Bennett’s Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual (for a Sexist Workplace).